Since today’s lectionary readings include Paul’s exhortation on the “great mystery” of Christian marriage, I thought it a seasonable time to reflect on that beleaguered institution. Paul’s profound meditation features the imperative that furnishes the interpretive key for the entire passage, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” One might also have heard the bowdlerized “shorter form,” which substitutes for the aforementioned verse (and others) the more treacly encouragement to “live in love.” In an age in which love is so easily sentimentalized, something is lost in the process. The stern, objective ring of “subordination” has the advantage of making the minimum requirements of marriage admirably clear—and refreshingly unromantic.
Striking this more dutiful note also begins to deflate the arguments of marriage’s recent detractors. Take, as one instance among many, the case against marriage recently published in the Atlantic. The author, lamenting and justifying her own divorce in the same breath, levels a single, recurrent indictment against contemporary marriage: it cannot sustain romance. Given her already overtaxed energies, she lacks the fortitude to “work on falling in love again in her marriage” or to “rekindle the romance;” never again can she “authentically reconjure the ancient dream of brides.” Along the way, she protests touchily against the saccharine testimonials on Oprah and the romance-through-work ethic of marriage’s self-help industry. To be sure, the author does not come across as enamored of hard work, but her skepticism about re-igniting the spark through candlelit date-nights deserves sympathy. If the flame of passion constitutes true marriage, then hers seems destined to be a phony.
Our author’s sad predicament calls to mind G.E.M. Anscombe’s defense of other unromantic concepts in the traditional theology of marriage. Since one seldom runs across a defense of the “marriage debt” by a woman who was at once wife, mother, and analytic philosopher, I took note. Her essay, “Contraception and Chastity,” explains,
[Natural conjugal affection] may be lacking or onesided. If a kind of love cannot be commanded, we can’t build our moral theology of marriage on the presumption that it will be present. Its absence is sad, but this sadness exists, it is very common… The command to a Christian couple is: “Grow in grace and love together.” But a joint command can only be jointly obeyed. Suppose it isn’t? Well, there remains the separate precept to each and in an irremediably unhappy marriage, one ought still to love the other, though not perhaps feeling the affection that cannot be commanded. Thus the notion of the “marriage debt” is a very necessary one, and it alone is realistic: because it makes no assumption as to the state of the affections.
Anscombe’s pastoral realism is sobering.
Romance, of course, is quite a good thing. In the best circumstances, marriage would provide the spark of affection and the security requisite for self-actualization. But these are not the essence of wedded love. Perhaps then our language ought occasionally to reflect the steely resolve at marriage’s core, lest couples find themselves too abruptly disillusioned. As a Jesuit missionary in Russia once told me, “The people do not riot because of hard conditions; they riot because of disappointed expectations.”